Who is this Devin McCourty I have seen over the past four weeks, and what has he done with the 2011 version?
The New England Patriots cornerback made a weekly ritual of emanating the smokey smell of burnt toast from the field at Gillette Stadium or anywhere the Patriots played.
It was bad.
It hasn't been perfect—a huge pass interference penalty near the end of the game against the Ravens practically sealed the win for Baltimore—but for the most part, McCourty is validating the decision of the Patriots coaching staff to keep him at cornerback.
In fact, Mike Dussault of PatsPropaganda.com pointed out that this is the best four-game start to a season he's enjoyed in his three-year career.
McCourty’s few errors this year have been ones that have drawn a lot of attention, but overall he’s really bounced back strong this year. Let’s compare his completions allowed percentage over the past three seasons for the first four games.
- 2010: 63.7%, 0 ints, 3 passes defended
- 2011: 65.4%, 0 ints, 3 passes defended
- 2012: 41.4%. 2 ints, 5 passes defended
It’s pretty clear his performance thus far in 2012 has been the best start to any of his seasons, giving up catches on just 41.4% of the plays he’s targeted is impressive. For comparison, [Jets cornerback Darrelle] Revis is usually around 40% for his full season ratings.
I won't make the quantum leap to call McCourty anything close to what Revis has become, but if he continues to perform this season like he has thus far, he's well on his way.
One thing that is noticeably different is that he's keeping his hips open to the line of scrimmage.
That was a big problem for him last year. He was getting burnt on a weekly basis, largely because he wasn't tracking the ball and his back was to the line of scrimmage.
McCourty was in position, but because he had no idea where the ball was, or even that it had been thrown, he was unable to make a play on the ball.
He's becoming more consistent in that regard this year. By keeping his hips open, he is able to play the ball without losing his defender.
He knows where the receiver is, and his eyes never leave the ball. That's a recipe for an interception for almost any cornerback, especially on an underthrown ball like this one.
That same ball might have resulted in pass interference or a big completion last year.
The reason he's been able to keep his hips open to the line is because the Patriots haven't been lining him up in press coverage as they did last year when McCourty got off to a rough start.
A funky off-man style of coverage utilized against the Ravens—with the corners lined up five yards off the line of scrimmage—contributed to McCourty's worst performance of the 2012 season to date, but they switched things up against the Buffalo Bills, which led to his first two-interception game since 2010.
McCourty's struggles were largely technique-related in 2011, and he is cleaning up those issues on his way to an improved 2012.
The Patriots have still given up big plays at a worse rate than usual, and although McCourty's been on the receiving end of a few of those, it's not nearly the rate of last year.
McCourty is a ball hawk; he's at his best when his hips are open to the line of scrimmage, allowing him to make a play on the ball. If he can remain fundamentally sound, the Patriots could have the answers they've long been waiting for in the secondary.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.